March 8, 2019 - On International Women’s Day, Sargent & Lundy is proud to celebrate Nancy Holmes, a trailblazer for women in STEM and an esteemed member of the Sargent & Lundy team for over 40 years. Not only was she the first woman to work as a structural engineering analyst in the firm’s highly specialized structural department, she was also the first woman to earn a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and PhD in engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Holmes played an instrumental role in paving the way for women at Sargent & Lundy and at her alma mater, although if you ask her, she’ll say being a woman in a predominately male field wasn’t something she ever considered to be that remarkable.
“I never thought much about being the only woman in my graduating class,” said Holmes. “I went to class, studied, and hoped I would get a good grade just like any other college student.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree in structural engineering in 1968, her master’s degree in materials engineering in 1970, and her PhD in engineering in 1976. She was the first woman to earn each of these degrees from the UIC College of Engineering. While Holmes may contend there was nothing extraordinary about her academic career, pursuing a PhD in engineering was a path very few women chose to take at that time.
“When I started college in 1958, the typical majors women pursued were general liberal arts and sciences (LAS), teaching, home economics, journalism, and for the very daring, business or science,” said Holmes. “Very few of us expected to have a career. For a lot of us, a college education was a way to find a husband. Most of us soon discovered that, for various reasons, we would be working at some point in our lives after marriage and children.”
Interestingly enough, Holmes saw engineering as the “easy choice.” In addition to coming from a family of engineers, she says she fell into the career by default. “I flunked typing and knew I could never make it as a secretary, the LAS curriculum was too difficult to follow, and I always had an interest in math; it was and still is exciting, logical, and has a certain beauty to it,” said Holmes.
However, for most women even today, becoming an engineer isn’t a choice made easily. In fact, according to the Society of Women Engineers only 13 percent of engineers are women.
“If only more women realized what a challenging and financially rewarding career engineering provides, I think the percentage would be a lot higher,” said Holmes.
Holmes began her career at Sargent & Lundy in 1976 as an engineering analyst in the structural analytical division of the firm’s structural department. For 18 years she helped develop computer programs used to determine the magnitude and effects of loads on structures in nuclear and fossil fuel power plants caused by earthquakes. During that time she worked or supervised work on all phases of the life cycle of computer programs used for soil structure interaction, generation of response spectra, analysis of cable tray and HVAC hangers, and piping systems. She retired in 1994 but has continued working as a consultant for the firm, modifying the program used to analyze piping systems.
She has been an active member of Engineers Without Borders for 11 years and recently traveled to Guatemala and Honduras to help build bridges and sanitation systems. She and her husband live in Oak Park, Illinois, and have three children, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.